Catherine Cawood is seven months, one week and three days away from retirement and is still dealing with the inexperience, incompetence, arrogance and assorted other failings of the people around her. Or “twats”, as she puts it, leaving a particularly egregious pair of them dumbfounded in her wake in the opening scene of the third and final series of Happy Valley (BBC One). She has just given them the identity of a partial skeleton in a cement-filled barrel that has been revealed by the draining of a local reservoir. She’s going to be sorry she gave them that, because he’s connected to her nemesis, but the moment is glorious.
Yes, writer Sally Wainwright’s masterwork is back, six years since the second series ended. Those years have also elapsed in the fictional version of Calder Valley, but all the main characters we have come to love or hate – Catherine (Sarah Lancashire), her ex-addict sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), her ex-husband, Richard (Derek Riddell), the tangled mass of conflictions that is her grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), and Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) – are here. George Costigan is back as Nevison Gallagher and his daughter, Ann (Charlie Murphy), is still with Catherine’s son, Daniel (Karl Davies).
They are, in Cawood terms at least, enjoying a bit of peace. Richard and Daniel are both at Ryan’s 16th birthday tea. Catherine and Richard are still friends. Clare is still sober and with Neil, who seems to be stable, too. “We move on, don’t we, in the end,” says Clare as she and Catherine take one of their breaks out in the garden, six months on from the discovery at the reservoir. Catherine muses on how much she’s looking forward to imminent retirement, and the blessings age brings. “I’m just becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be. I say it like it is, I don’t take shit off anyone any more. I know who I am, finally. And I know that it’s not the be-all and end-all to get hitched to the first flaky twat of a man who happens along.” And before you can quite think: “Hang on, that sounds a bit preachy for Catherine/Wainwright!” Clare points out that she’s always been like that. “Aye, well,” says Catherine, “I’m feeling it now.”
She has bought a Land Rover in order to set off on a drive to the Himalayas as soon as she stops work. But in keeping with Wainwright’s abiding truth, the best laid plans of middle-aged women gang aft agley, and elsewhere the forces are gathering that will shatter Catherine’s once again.
Tommy, still in prison, is arrested for the murder of the man in the reservoir. He admits being involved in the man’s “punishment” for an unpaid debt, but not with the killing. The police know that a local drugs kingpin ordered a recent failed hit on Tommy in prison and are hoping Tommy will name him as the murderer – but he names an Oldham villain instead.
With that hare off and running, we turn to what has always been Happy Valley’s greatest strength – the domestic strife of those in and around Cawood’s vicinity and the tracing of the tendrils that will gradually entwine with the main narrative, because everything in Calder Valley, as in life, is more intimately connected than we generally care to recognise (or guard against).
Joanna Hepworth (Mollie Winnard), the wife of Ryan’s football coach, Bob – a bully who calls the lad “a little shitstain” on the pitch – is taking non-prescription diazepam. When Bob finds out, he assaults and humiliates her before calling the police. Catherine turns up and soon has his abusive, coercively controlling number, though his wife won’t – yet? – admit to anything.
Joanna’s supplier is the local pharmacist, Faisal Bhatti (Amit Shah), who is running a small-scale pill mill. This comes to the attention of the family that considers supplying any kind of illegal substance to these increasingly troubled towns their monopoly business. They duly send their thugs to threaten him and his family – specifically with treating his wife and daughter “like bitches”. Nobody does female-specific experience like Wainwright, or evokes the thousands of different shades and forms of violence that hang about it better than she does.
By the end of the first episode, all the narrative pieces are in play – from the drug plots, to the Hepworths’ private misery, via a shattering revelation for Catherine that would undo a lesser woman. The warp and weft of lives, of life, is as expertly woven as ever and you couldn’t wish for a better group of actors to bring it to you. Happy new year.
• This article was amended on 4 January 2023. Catherine Cawood plans to make her retirement journey to the Himalayas by Land Rover rather than in a Jeep.